Air conditioning technology is outdated. These are AC options for a warmer future.

This week, Californians got a reminder of one of the most vexing paradoxes of global warming. With temperatures well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas Tuesday night, hundreds of thousands of state residents received text alerts warning them that the power grid, under the weight of millions of air conditioning units, was about to collapse. Save energy now, warn text or deal with power outages.

Consumers saved, and the state’s power grid emerged relatively unscathed from a day of record heat. Yet, as temperatures rise around the world, more and more people will need to install air conditioners. But As currently sold, air conditioners can actually make global warming worse: on hot days, they suck tons of electricity from the grid, and their chemical refrigerants can accelerate global warming.

This is why researchers and start-ups are in hopes of creating new state-of-the-art air conditioning units. AC technology has seen only “incremental improvements over the past 100 years,” said Ankit Kalanki, director of Third Derivative, a climate technology accelerator co-founded by energy think tank RMI. “There hasn’t been a sea change in innovation.”

The good news is that companies are racing to develop more efficient air conditioners. The question is whether they will be ready in time.

Current ACs won’t cut it

Over the next few decades, global demand for air conditioning is expected to soar. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of air conditioning units in buildings worldwide is expected to reach 5.6 billion by 2050, compared to only around 2 billion units today.

But unless air conditioning is improved, all of these air conditioners are going to put unprecedented strain on the power grid. Air conditioners and electric fans already account for around 10% of electricity consumption worldwide. On extremely hot days, air conditioning efficiency decreases, as the units have to work harder to move heat from indoors to outdoors. During a heat wave, millions of people come home and turn on their air conditioners at the same time, somewhere between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. When this happens, air conditioning can account for 60-70% of electrical demand, and rattle the grids like those in California.

Meanwhile, the key component of modern air conditioners – the chemicals known as refrigerants – have been the bane of the atmosphere for decades. Air conditioners work by exposing a liquid refrigerant, a low-boiling chemical, to warm indoor air. This heat causes the refrigerant to evaporate into gas, cooling the air. A compressor then turns the refrigerant into liquid and repeats the process.

The problem is that refrigerants can leak from air conditioners, both during use and, more often, when air conditioners are thrown away. Early ACs were largely made with chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were responsible for one of the first truly global climate concerns: the hole in the ozone layer. CFCs were phased out by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty aimed at combating the depletion of the ozone hole, and eventually replaced by hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.

But HFCs have their own problem: they are greenhouse gases that, in the short term, are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. An amendment to the Montreal Protocol calls for a dramatic reduction in HFCs by the mid-2040s; meanwhile, however, they still contribute to global warming.

There are many ways to make existing AC technology more efficient. Some newer air conditioning units use different refrigerants, such as one known as R-32, which has less global warming potential than other hydrofluorocarbons and also requires less energy to compress, thus saving air. ‘electricity. Other units use a technology known as “variable speed compressors”, which allows the unit to operate under different parameters. The compressor can speed up if it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit and stuffy, or slow down if it’s only 85 degrees. This can help save on electricity and utility bills.

And more advanced models are just around the corner. Kalanki was one of the leaders of an RMI initiative known as the Global Cooling Prize, which rewarded manufacturers capable of producing affordable AC prototypes that would be at least five times better for the climate than existing models. Two companies received the award in tandem: Gree Electric Appliances and Daikin Industries. Both used traditional vapor compression technology, but with improved refrigerants and clever designs that could change parameters in response to outside temperatures.

Other companies, start-ups and researchers are investigating whether they can ditch vapor compression altogether. A startup called Blue Frontier uses a liquid that sucks moisture out of the air and stores it in a reservoir to control the temperature. According to the company, this approach could save up to 60% of the electricity needed to run an air conditioner year-round. And a group of researchers from Harvard University have developed a prototype air conditioner they call coldSNAP. The prototype uses no refrigerant, but uses a special coating on a ceramic frame to evaporate water to cool the interior space without adding moisture to the air. “Because we don’t have the vapor compression system and the power to try to release and compress the refrigerants, the power consumption of those systems is much, much lower,” said Jonathan Grinham, l one of the project’s researchers.

What to look for when buying

Some of these newer designs can take years to hit the market, and when they do, they can still be more expensive than conventional ACs. But until then, says Kalanki, there are still plenty of options for buying a more efficient AC unit. “There are technologies that are two to three times more efficient than the most common ACs on the market today,” Kalanki said. “The challenge is that adoption is very low.” Most consumers, he argues, only look at the price displayed on an air conditioning unit and ignore the fact that buying a more expensive unit upfront could save them money in the long run.

He recommends buyers consider three things when considering an air conditioning unit: the type of refrigerant used, the efficiency rating, and whether or not the unit has a variable-speed compressor. These metrics can tell consumers if their unit is likely to cost them thousands of dollars in utility bills and if it will unduly aggravate the problem of climate change.

Ultimately, he added, the government needs to set higher performance standards for air conditioners so that everything The air conditioners on the market – not just the high end ones – are efficient and safe for the planet. “There are regulations in place to fix the floor of air conditioners,” he said. “But that floor is a bit too low.”

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